Exploring the question of racism in Ireland

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Racism and Anti-Racism in Ireland, Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh (eds), Beyond the Pale Publications, £10.99 pbk

THERE IS much food for thought here in this 248-page collection of essays from 12 anti-racist activists and academics examining racism in modern Ireland. If we have any concern with the development of a just, progressive society in Ireland then this book must be read, studied and lessons taken.

It is good to be reminded of the aspiration of the 1916 Proclamation that, in an independent Ireland, the state would ‘cherish the children of the nation equally’, especially at this time when, only a few months ago, a Chinese student in Dublin, Zhao Liu Tao, was beaten to death with an iron bar in an horrific racist attack.

As important as this book is, for me it raises more questions than it answers and made me question the historic perspective of some contributors.

Such a work would benefit from an historic overview, including the racism practised against the Irish during the centuries of colonialism as well as modern racism practised against newcomers to Ireland.

How those centuries have marked the Irish psyche is an important background. Indeed, the modern ‘racism’, classified more accurately as ‘sectarianism’, but with all the psychology of racism, endemic in the six counties, should also have been a concern. The Irish past is important to understanding, not excusing, modern attitudes.

But the book is concerned only with racism against the newcomer populations. The dedication, ‘In memory of Ettie Steinberg, the only Irish person to have been murdered in Auschwitz’, ignores the fact that Dubliner Esther Steinberg’s son Leon was also killed in that concentration camp. Research on Irish people of all religions who perished in the camps is, sadly, in its infancy.

Five Irish merchant sailors were killed at Farge, the SS slave labour camp outside Bremen. The five are mentioned in a recent book by a Welshman, G. Thomas, who also points out Irish merchant seamen were not treated as internees or PoWs. Indeed, he points out that the Irish were singled out for particularly sadistic treatment in the concentration camps as the Germans expected them to be fighting with them against ‘their arch-enemy England’. So much for neutrality.

Evidence has emerged that a merchant sailor, Mike Lehane, an Irish speaker from Kerry, was killed in Norway in 1942 when it was discovered he had fought in the Connolly column in the Spanish civil war.

Because the propagandised stigma of the Irish Free State’s neutrality in 1939-45, we have still not completed research on the true involvement of Irish people in the war against Nazism. The fact that personnel from ‘neutral’ Ireland won more Allied military honours than an officially belligerent country like Canada ought to cause us to question the picture of Ireland’s role in WWII. Many Irish joined Allied ‘secret armies’ like the SOE, OSS and perished in concentration camps.

Dubliner Tony Northrop, himself an SOE officer dropped behind enemy lines, knew several of them. When he left Trinity College Dublin, Northrop was commissioned in the London Irish Rifles and survived the war to assist Lord Russell of Liverpool in his war crimes investigations.

I might be considered making a pedantic issue over a simple dedication. But in studies such as this we must be clear and concise in our thinking and double-check all our facts. There is no room for the Sebag-Montefiore type of black propaganda or misinformation. Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s 1997 Channel 4 documentary was an outrageous piece of anti-Irish republican propaganda, claiming that Sinn Féin and the IRA were anti-Semitic -- at a time even before Sinn Féin had been founded.

I also have an aversion to sweeping generalisations and here, I am afraid, I winced every time Ronit Lentin slipped into ‘Irish people believe’ ‘Irish people think’ and a sentence like ‘Irish Jews are also seen by Irish people as wielding disproportionate financial power’. Do the Irish Jews see this?

Lentin seems to be guilty of what she accuses others -- separating Irish Jews as being different from Irish people.

Such caveats aside, Lentin and McVeigh are to be applauded for putting this book together. It is a start. But I do not see this as the promised authoritative academic text hailed by the publishers.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-06-05 23:08:16.
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